Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

American Preeminence, for Better and for Worse

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

American Preeminence, for Better and for Worse

Article excerpt

Michael Northcott, professor of ethics at the University of Edinburgh, illustrates the embarrassing silliness of so much of the contemporary professoriate. In New Blackfriars, Northcott tells us that fear is being marketed to us by the Bush and Blair (now Brown) administrations under the brand name "war on terror." By Northcott's accounting, the Bush-Cheney cabal promotes a "discourse of fear" in order to "sustain an atmosphere of fear in the United States" so that "corporate sponsors" can reap profits and maintain power. "The brand the 'war on terror' creates the illusion," Northcott writes, "that the United States is engaged in a global war with a range of enemies who include Islamists, anti-globalisation activists, environmental and animal rights activists."

But we can't see this, of course, because we have been duped by that "discourse of fear." We can't see that all those controversial policies developed by the Bush and Blair administrations were not really put forward in good faith as efforts to protect American and British citizens from repeated terrorist attacks. Quite the contrary, as Northcott's discourse about discourse asserts, it's all for the sake of a global imperialism that wants to, well, rape, pillage, destroy, and dominate. The nuance underwhelms.

Sanity does intrude for a moment. Northcott cannot sustain his illusion that our enemies are illusions. It's difficult to show how the dead bodies in New York and London were produced by "discourse." Terrorism exists. But silliness returns: The deaths are our fault. "Far from reducing the risk of terrorist attacks," Northcott writes, "the 'war on terror' has actually advanced both the fear and the reality of terror and violence." So it's not that discourse creates dead bodies. That's much too simplistic. Rather, discourse makes people into our enemies, and then they attack us. "Even the Foreign Office," Northcott informs us, "now believes that the rhetoric of 'war on terror' has advanced Islamic hostility toward Britain around the world." If only we had adopted a less confrontational approach.

The logic seems flawless. If you refuse to call anybody an enemy, then, by golly, you won't have any enemies. This moral and cultural appeasement has been a longtime strategy of the capitulatory left. Faced with evil, they redefine it as cultural difference. As Patrick Moynihan observed, the left tends to handle social problems by defining deviancy down. Northcott simply applies this Alice-in-Wonderland approach to international affairs.

For centuries, ordinary folks have made fun of bookish dons and abstracted professors. We call the university the Ivory Tower because we sense that an expertise in ideas often has little to do with competence in reality. In the old days, the professors were serene in their splendid isolation. One could admire their brilliance while making gentle fun of their irrelevance. Today we see a much less appealing professorial personality at large: someone who dresses up ill-informed political thatribes in the finery of "discourse analysis" and publishes them in what were formerly thought of as scholarly journals. It's a double shame. A shame that the academy looks so transparendy and undiinkingly partisan. A shame that people who are paid to give patient diought to the genuinely difficult moral questions forgo their intellectual duty and give us breezy speculations about "discourse" and "rhetoric" instead of close analysis of policy intentions, actions, and consequences. …

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